AWAKENING THE CHURCH
The visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI will be an impulse for the faith of the church in Cuba because it is going to be in a good moment – says Fr. Dariusz Iżykowski, a Salesian, who has worked as a missionary on Cuba for 6 years.
JOLANTA MARSZAŁEK: - What surprised Priest the most after arriving in Cuba?
FR. DARIUSZ IŻYKOWSKI SDB: - Cuba is an exotic country so it has got a right to surprise us with everything. A testimony of life in faith of the Catholics and the Church in Cuba is very moving. Their deep sense of belonging to the Church, sense of values which is the Christian faith, enthusiasm towards the infinity of problems and spiritual emptiness in the society make a great impression. The life situation of the whole society, deep feeling of helplessness, fear, hopelessness towards everyday challenges and personal, moral or family problems; a deep sense of evil, stagnation and helplessness are very moving.
– Did the experience of communism leave its mark in the Cuba Church and the sacrifice by the Church under the reign of Fidel Castro?
– Certainly, it did. The Church suffered but the nation suffered as well. Communism in Cuba was something different than in Europe or Poland. A different mentality, different historical and geopolitical factors are there as well. Today every Cuban is aware that he lives in the post-communist relict, which has already been dead and completely inefficient. And what exists in Cuba is not called communism any more by the same Cubans but it has a different name. Changes went too far and they not only removed the Church from the island which is being born anew, and not only the social life was destroyed but today it is said about a completely dysfunctional generation. A family was destroyed in a shocking way. The consequences were reaching deeply even the personal life. Not only did the inner political situation have an influence on it, or materialistic ideology or introduced social equity and equal distribution of means necessary to live. The inner and outer emigration policy had an influence on it as well. Today in the Cuban society there is demoralization, materialistic look at life, complete spiritual emptiness and impoverishment of even human values. In the extreme cases it even happens that demoralised children in closed schools are able to rob even their family houses. Depravation of private property and the socialistic distribution system destroyed the initiative and made people unable to satisfy their needs. The foreign policy of emigration, especially from the United States and attractive offers of employment abroad within the mission suggested by the government are leading to depriving societies of the most valuable people. The family underwent a complete destruction. As far as the Church is concerned, we must know that before Fidel Castro took over his authority, there had been a post-colonial Church which had been stiff in his structures. It had been destined for the privileged and although it had had so many works such as schools, hospitals, the society hardly identified with it. In 1961 the majority of clergy and religious orders assemblies, leaving their whole possession, left the island hastily, understanding the situation in a wrong way and thinking it as a temporary situation. Many of them were forced to leave the island through threats. A dark time came for a small group of those who stayed and those who decided to hide. There were some people who did not come out of their houses in the defence of churches, spending whole years without electricity or running water, relying only on courageous people’s mercy. A completely unreligious or anti-religious model came. One might have even lost work or a house for his faith. At that time a small group of the faithful remained. Very few people came to ‘functioning’ churches, and there were such churches which were visited by only one or two people on Sunday. People met with one another at their homes in places where there were not any churches or priests and they organised catechisation for their children. The Holy Communion was brought from often very far-distanced places to the faithful. It was a very dark period which left very ruined and robbed temples and only a small group of the faithful. And after that the year 1985 came.
– There are no churches or priests – so how is the Church developing?
– The Church in Cuba exists and functions thanks to laymen, thanks to laity. Everyone, from their childhood till the elderly age are engaged in the life of the Church. It is based on small communities like in the beginning of Christianity. These are very small communities in which everybody knows each other, the definite majority of them do not have their own church or a building and they gather in their houses or under trees. In big cities these communities go to thousands of people and there are some of them which gather a few people or only children and the youth. These communities have their own councils, animators, catechists and pastoral agents. They keep those churches and chapels on their own which they possess, they teach catechesis on their own, visit ill people and bring the Holy Communion to them after Sunday Masses. They direct the distribution of food to people and Caritas to the poorest in their housing estates. All this is in the strict cooperation with the pastoral centre which is diocesan curia. Such a structure of the missionary Church which is slipping away from legal restrictions is a real phenomenon of faith. The parish in San Diego in the Santa Clara diocese was managed by a young doctor neuro-surgeon Lester Quiros who catechized children and adults, organised houses of prayer, consoled others, gave them enthusiasm and hope. I know catechists who go on foot 20 km and their only pay is hope that one day will come when everybody will see the value of the Ten Commandments.
– What is the work of a missionary in Cuba?
– Cuba’s population is 11 mln and the number of priests does not reach 500 yet. The Church is organised in ten dioceses with very various needs. Despite restrictions and impossibilities of functioning in many environments, such as schools, hospitals, social assistance centre, state institutions and public places, the priests are short of time to take care of everything. Their work is made very difficult by the material and existential situation. A moving testimony is devotion by older priests who, despite their exploitation are still on the first line, without electricity, water, without transport in the mountains or on a steppe. An ill priest Jordano used to be brought from his bed to the church del Carmen by young people so that he could celebrate the Sunday Mass for the faithful living there. Generally young priests are overworked and they carry out their ministry in a few parishes simultaneously, often without necessary material means and their support are families, neighbours and the faithful. The work of a priest in Cuba is not limited only to sacraments or catechesis. Every day they must help to solve everyday life problems of the faithful and those who see the Church as their last resort and their problems are economic, moral, personal and of their families and are often not easy. All the time and everywhere there is need for a good word, consolation and a bit of friendliness. Without feeling that God really leads and accompanies, life would be really difficult.
– What influence did the visit of John Paul II have on the development of the Cuban Church?
– In Poland there is a belief that our Pope went there and made revolutionary changes. Nothing like that was there. In 1986 a small group of Cuban priests, wanting to join the great program of re-evangelisation of both Americas, decided to prepare their own program, relying completely on their own possibilities. Since then the Catholic Church in Cuba is developing. It was a turning point which came out of the sanctuary Del Cobre. John Paul II had seen an already crawling baby. The Pope’s visit allowed the Church to exist anew in the mentality of the society. When the Pope was travelling through towns of Cuba, most people stayed at their homes for fear and they were only watching the television transmission. At that time there were only few people who had walked many kilometres, even on foot, in order to take part in the live meeting with the Holy Father. Many people did not have any possibility to get to squares because of the restrictions in transport. In Santa Clara the most courageous and loyal people were persuading their neighbours to go to the stadium in order to fulfil it before the Pope’s arrival. It was like breaking the ice, awakening the awareness.
– Do people go to God’s Mother in pilgrimages like in our country?
– La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre is a national symbol, not only religious. The greatest Cuban heroes went with this figure of Mary to fight for freedom and independence of the island. It is a Miraculous Figure which is very close to every Cuban heart. The Virgin of Mercifulness from El Cobre has been the Patron of Cuba since 1916, and proclaimed to the request of the Cubans by Pope Benedict XV. During his visit on the island in 1998 John Paul II crowned the figure of Mary with papal crowns, proclaiming Her the Mother of Reconciliation of Cuba as well. I also met those who said that they did not know anything about God but they believed in the Virgin from El Cobre. I also met those even among Pentecostal sects who kept the image of La Virgen del Cobre in their wardrobes. Today the sanctuary is rather a place of silence and prayer. A dream of every Cuban is visiting El Cobre. Nearly every inhabitant of the island vowed something to the Holy Virgin in their heart. However, organizing foot pilgrimages is too complicated because of the lack of means.
– Pope Benedict XVI will visit the sanctuary of God’s Mother from El Cobre, because this year there is 400th anniversary of finding the figure of the Virgin of Mercifulness. What significance does this sanctuary have for the Cubans? Is it the same significance which Jasna Góra has for the Poles?
– It does. It is the place from where the great evangelisation of Cuba set off, nearly two years ago. The faithful replica of the Miraculous Figure set off from the sanctuary is travelling in a pilgrimage throughout whole Cuba, travelling through towns and villages and raising faith and hope among the Cubans anew, who are waking up and for whom the Virgin from El Cobre and the Catholic Church are hope and place of meeting with God, reconciliation and peace anew. The visit of Pope Benedict XVI in this place will have an unusual significance, not only symbolic but first of all, spiritual. It is like entering the national conscience, the conscience of every inhabitant of Cuba, entering what is the most intimate and is still reserved for the very God.
– How are the Cubans preparing for the visit of Pope?
– The visit converges with the Jubilee celebrations of 400th anniversary of finding the Miraculous Figure and these celebrations are preceded by a great evangelisation action in which everybody is engaged , but in fact, every Catholic, including children. Today there is no house in Cuba where there would not be the image of La Virgen del Cobre. Catholic missionaries visited every home, every family, knocked at all doors, raising hope and faith anew. More people than there are inhabitants in a particular area participate in the peregrination of the Miraculous Figure of the Holy Virgin. There are spontaneous processions, without the permission of the authority. There are throngs of people in the streets and on the squares where La Virgen is passing by. There are thousands of people, there is an atmosphere of prayer and tears in eyes are seen. The Miraculous Figure of the Holy Virgin arrives at schools, hospitals, social care institutions, prisons or workplaces without the permission of the authorities. This all is in the atmosphere of prayer, among emotions and tears and also enthusiasm and great hope. The National Mariological Congress is planned – it may not be a great social event but for the relation - the Church – the State it may be significant. Today small communities of the Catholics are growing in strength. Today there is a shortage of catechists and in parishes a few catechumen groups are appearing. The biggest percent of people returning to the Church are academic communities. Such a church is waiting for the successor of St. Peter. It is the spring of the Church in Cuba.